On Tuesday, I’m giving a PhD presentation at the annual SPS Symposium held at Monash University. This year, I’m focusing on Australian strategic culture, and the recent debates about Australian defence and national security policy. Some of this material is in an article co-written with Ben Eltham that is currently under review with the journal Contemporary Security Policy.
Mann’s book is a dense, scholarly study and comparative analysis of the modern nation-state system that blends economics, history, sociology, and political science.
It’s also the kind of life-long, indepth research that is now impossible to do under Australian research and publications metrics. Research administrators interpret these metrics as Taylorist outputs: they often don’t consider the long-term investment needed to develop such research programs.
Australia’s Gillard Government has released its Australia In The Asian Century white paper.
Yesterday, I had to cancel two papers/presentations with coauthor Ben Eltham at the International Studies Association‘s annual convention in San Francisco in April 2013. We both were unable to get access to research incentive and travel funding for the ISA conference. Some lessons:
1. Negotiate your initial contract carefully. Your university employer makes a valuation decision on your career if it gives you an Academic Level versus a HEW Administrator contract. Academic Level roles are governed by the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALs) and can access research incentive and conference travel funding. HEW Administrator roles often cannot and don’t have as clear pathways for funding access: they are not considered researchers even if they have an existing track record. These access and resource allocative differences can shape your career and create a ‘success to the successful’ dynamic that is needed to become an academic superstar (Sherwin Rosen). Get access to research funds in writing and in your contract: an email or verbal promise often won’t survive a staff change or a cost reduction initiative.
2. Negotiate some personal discretionary funds. A secret of successful professoriate is that they negotiate a salary loading component during their initial contract negotiations that are personal discretionary funds. This enables conference travel independent of budget, staff or organisational changes.
3. Situate the conference within a long-term research program. University senior management have a ‘value for money’ philosophy. They are interested in grant and journal publication outputs rather than conference papers. You need to show in your conference travel application how the conference will build your international visibility (an MSALs criterion); how the papers will lead to high-level journal publications; and how you will build networks that could become collaborative teams or mentors for competitive grant applications. Be strategic about this: don’t just go to an international conference because of the exotic locale. You are instead reframing the ‘value for money’ philosophy as a strategic level investment in your research career, and with up-front, observable research outputs. Know what the economic value added of your research program is to your university. Link your research program to university areas of distinctive specialisation or strategic investment priority. Use the pre-panel discussions to find out what other national and international researchers and research teams are doing in your area.
4. Get an institutional champion. Explain to your boss or supervisor why the conference is important to your research program and overall career. Get their advice and help in dealing with the institutional paperwork for conference travel funding. Having an institutional champion means you won’t feel isolated and you have someone who can help to make the ‘research case’ to senior decision-makers if needed. Your professional association might also have a conference travel fund that you should apply for.
5. Develop healthy psychological barriers from your organisation’s problems and self-narrative. The rejection of conference travel funding might relate to other factors such as budget austerity, misaligned incentives (which can involve decision rights and moral hazard), or a change in research funding priorities. You need to differentiate yourself and your research program from the “struggle” narrative (Dr. Jose M. Ramos) that occurs in organisational reform initiatives. You likely did not cause institutional debt or the failure to invest in the necessary infrastructure and strategic portfolios — and you can be part of the change management initiative. Don’t take the funding rejection personally: practice mindfulness techniques and try to be psychologically resilient.
6. Write the papers anyway. If you don’t get conference travel funding then reframe this as a self-limit to work around. Think like a New Wave (1978-84) musician: if you decide to self-fund the conference travel then ensure your financial affairs and taxation records are in order. I liked Ben Eltham’s advice: “Let’s use this energy to write write a couple of shit-hot peer-reviewed papers.”
Coauthor Ben Eltham (a PhD candidate at University of Western Sydney and rising star in Australian national affairs journalism for Crikey and New Matilda) and I have two papers accepted for the International Studies Association‘s annual convention in San Francisco in 2013:
Australia’s Strategic Culture and Constraints in Defense and National Security Policymaking
Scholars have advanced different conceptualizations of Australia’s strategic culture. Collectively, this work contends Australia is a ‘middle power’ nation with a realist defense policy, elite discourse, entrenched military services, and a regional focus. This paper contends that Australia’s strategic culture has unresolved tensions due to the lack of an overarching national security framework, and policymaking constraints at two interlocking levels: cultural worldviews and institutional design that affects strategy formulation and resource allocation. The cultural constraints include confusion over national security policy, the prevalence of neorealist strategic studies, the Defence Department’s dominant role in formulating strategic doctrines, and problematic experiences with Asian ‘regional engagement’ and the Pacific Islands. The institutional constraints include resourcing, inter-departmental coordination, a narrow approach to government white papers, and barriers to long-term strategic planning. In this paper, we examine possibilities for continuity and change, including the Gillard Government’s forthcoming ‘Asian Century’ whitepaper and 2013 defense whitepaper.
(Thanks to Wooster College’s Jeff Lantis for coordinating the Strategic Culture panel that this paper is on.)
Complexity, Model Risk, and International Security
International security thinking has evolved beyond initial research in the early-to-mid using the chaos and complexity sciences. Firms including Kissinger & Associates, Pimco, The Prediction Company (now part of UBS), Roubini Global Economics and Stratfor have created new models to understand catastrophic/tail risks, and to profit from geopolitical flashpoints such as the current speculative bubble in rare earths, China’s growth in the Asia-Pacific region, and the greater involvement of multi-national corporations in the international political economy. This paper builds on the work of scholars in international security and the sociology of economics and finance, journalists, and hedge fund and risk management practitioners, to address how these new models have diffused into hybrid academic-commercial environments, how they construct new social realities, and ‘model risk’. We focus on structural micro-foundations: to what degrees and under what conditions do the assumptions underlying these new risk models correspond to real-world phenomena like geopolitical flashpoints? Are these phenomena measurable? Are the relationships between them robust? We examine as a case study the Anonymous hack of Stratfor in December 2011, Stratfor’s planned hedge fund StratCap, and Stratfor’s reaction including its hiring in March 2012 of Atlantic Monthly journalist Robert D. Kaplan.
Foreign Policy blogger Stephen Walt observes:
It’s no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the “birthers?”) I’ve heard them every time I’ve lectured in the region and done my best to debunk them.
I used to edit the alternative news site Disinformation (1998-2003 site archive here). When I got access to the server logs I found the site was getting significant readers from Middle East countries. This was one of several reasons why I did not pursue or publish September 11 conspiracy theories during my editorial stint (which subsequent editors and user-generated content have reversed). It is territory that historian Jeffrey Herf examined during the World War II period in his book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Ithaca NY: Yale University Press, 2009). An Amazon.com search on “conspiracy theories” reveals the book Orientalism and Conspiracy: Politics and Conspiracy Theory in the Islamic World (London: IB Tauris, 2010).
Marc Ambinder and Daniel Drezner’s comments (here) on the Cairo and Benghazi riots recalls a point that Ben Eltham and I made in our Twitter Free Iran (2009) conference paper: social media content can trigger a causality chain that leads to deaths ‘in real life’.
Isaac Chotiner hates Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine (The New Republic).
Jonah Lehrer on Daniel Kahneman (The New Yorker).
Ben Eltham on the Fairfax cuts (ABC).
Imagine Entertainment to adapt George Orwell’s 1984 (Deadline).
How to get a job in academia when you finish your PhD (The Thesis Whisperer).
Cocaine Incorporated (New York Times Magazine).
No matter how much the journalists protest about “quality”, the hard facts remain. Fairfax’s newspapers will have to be slimmed down even more quickly than they already are, while new revenue sources in the digital space will have to be conjured up. Under Greg Hywood, there seems every sign that at last management “gets” this, and is moving aggressively to implement the necessary changes.
This is the unmistakeable logic behind the decision to remove 66 sub-editors from newspapers in Newcastle and Woollongong, to be replaced by staff in New Zealand, where presumably they will work for less. Call it outsourcing, call it offshoring — call it common sense. Hywood and his team are doing what most listed corporations would do when faced with a high-cost part of their business with rapidly declining revenues. They’re slashing costs. They’re looking for ways to deliver the same product more cheaply.
Offshoring sub-editorial jobs has been on the cards for a decade. John Hagel III and John Seely Brown’s book The Only Sustainable Edge (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005) situated offshoring as a cost-cutting option amidst the “accelerated capability building” that would underpin sustainable competitive advantage. For Hagel III and Brown, offshoring helped firms to engage in “dynamic specialization”: “the commitment to eliminate resources and activities that no longer differentiate the firm and to concentrate on accelerating growth from the capabilities that truly distinguish the firm in the marketplace” (p. 54, emphasis added). This argument resonated with a broader debate about disruptive innovation and also with the 2003-07 growth of emerging markets and exchange traded funds for international investors.
Eltham’s arguments also do not contradict a 2009 study that I co-wrote with Barry Saunders on journalists as ‘investigators’ and ‘quality media’ reputation. Saunders and I studied a cohort of 20 journalists who differentiated themselves with investigative skills from other domains. For example, Bethany McLean who broke the Enron scandal had Wall Street investment bank experience. Media outlets like The New Yorker and The New York Times built their ‘quality media’ reputation also through fact-checking, editorial, and legal processes, and through a Classical Hollywood-style star system of journalists. NYT journalists are often featured on PBS Frontline documentaries, for instance. Finally, our study coincided with a debate about philanthropic foundations and grant-making as a funding model for quality journalism.
Fairfax has not followed the study’s advice.
Neither have the striking Fairfax journalists.
Regrettably, many of New Matilda‘s readers also missed Eltham’s insights about Fairfax’s market valuation. It’s vital to understand the role of structural economic factors, debt/equity ratios, and labour market bargaining in assessing the possible futures of newspapers. Institutional investors also influence Fairfax’s management. Fred Hilmer’s memoir The Fairfax Experience: What The Management Texts Didn’t Teach Me (Milton: John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2007) reveals that he spent almost half his day at Fairfax dealing with financial issues and meeting with institutional investors. The same week as the Fairfax journalists’ strike, investor Gina Rinehart continued her bid to control Fairfax’s board. Rinehart’s tactics reflect Carl Icahn‘s ‘activist investor’ strategy (presentation). However, these insights are often taught more in mergers and acquisitions courses than in journalism school.
Fairfax’s share price was range-bound on 30th and 31st May before dropping on 1st June. It’s difficult to show that the Fairfax journalist strike was a causal factor that convinced investors to sell Fairfax’s stock. The strike may have created an opportunity for short-sellers and event arbitrageurs. Macroeconomic uncertainty in China, India and the United States broadly affected the Australian financial markets. The month’s end also meant portfolio rebalancing by fund managers.
What could striking Fairfax journalists do? Visit SalaryTutor.com. Read The Lean Startup and The Startup of You. Develop a personal competitive advantage, and several back-up plans. You will face a more lean newsroom environment.
New York Times journalist Paul Sullivan examines film as an alternative investment: budget control, non-completion guarantees, state tax credits, portfolio approaches, and direct marketing.
I was once keenly interested in film as an alternative investment class. In the early 1990s, I looked at Australia’s Film Finance Corporation as a government-run investment bank. I worked for and invested in straight-to-video films by Bendigo’s Fatal Impact Productions, which in 2010 became embroiled in a controversy about The Book of Eli‘s origination. The same year, Ben Eltham and I looked at Australia’s film industry and international tax arbitrage. But my undergraduate studies in film were just on the cusp of digital film and editing innovations. I went into freelance journalism rather than finish the feature film scripts I was working on.
Today, I am more likely to read about films as alternative investments in a CFA Institute exam question.
I am sympathetic to all of these conditions, but I have found it important to cultivate the ability to write at any time, in any circumstance — even if it’s just collecting thoughts about something. I keep a pen and paper in my pocket at all times, pen and pad by my bed, notebook(s) in my backpack and all over the house. I do find that I need large chunks of uninterrupted time to surmount larger writing tasks, but the ubiquity of computers, portable or otherwise, makes writing anywhere a much more viable option. [emphasis added]
Christopher’s insight led to an email exchange on the barriers that academia poses for writers. I think about this a lot in my current university gig as a developmental editor. I also work with a talented copy-editor. Here are six ways that academia kills writing:
1. Perverse incentive structures. Christopher and I are both intrinsically motivated writers who approach it as a craft. We blog, write journal articles and in-progress PhD dissertations, and Christopher has several book projects. In contrast, some academics I know write only for performance-based incentives. They play games such as writing fake conference papers, sending book manuscripts to vanity publishers, and publishing in obscure international journals. This leads the university research administrators to change the incentives structures. It also introduces scoping problems into competitive grants: the journal article(s) only get written if the money is awarded. It’s very rare that I find an intrinsically motivated writer: maybe an Early Career Researcher who has just finished their PhD, or a senior academic intent on making a contribution to their field or discipline. I wish academics had a more hip-hop or punk sensibility and just did the work, regardless of the institutional incentives.
2. Misuse of university research metrics. The Australian Research Council‘s Excellence for Research in Australia shifted the research conversation to performance and quality-based outputs. This also lead to games such as poaching academics who had ERA publishing track records. However, it also sometimes led to a narrow focus on A* and A-level journals without changes to the workload models or training investment for academic skills and robust research designs. Not everyone is Group of 8, Harvard or Stanford material, or at least not at their career stage. Metrics use must be counter-balanced with an understanding of intellectual capital and development strategies. To-date the use of ERA and Field of Research metrics is relatively unsophisticated, and it can often actually de-value academic work and publishing track records.
3. A failure to understand and create the conditions for the creative process. The current academic debate about knowledge creation swings between two extremes. On the one hand, budget-driven cost-cutting similar to GE’s Work-Out under Jack Welch or private equity turnarounds. On the other, a desire to return to a mythical Golden Age where academics are left alone with little accountability. Both views are value destructive. The middle ground is to learn from Hollywood studios, music producers, and academic superstars about the creative process, and to create the conditions for it. This means allowing time for insights to emerge or for academics to become familiar with new areas. It means not relying on conferences and being pro-active in forming collaborative networks. It means treating academic publications as an event and leveraging them for maximum public impact and visibility. Counterintuitively, it can also mean setting limits, stage gates, and ‘no go’ or ‘abandon’ criteria (real options theory can be a useful tool). This is one reason why Christopher and I sometimes exchange stories of the strategies that artists use: to learn from them. This is a different mentality to some university administrators who expect research publications to emerge from out of nowhere (a view often related to the two barriers above).
4. Mystifing the blind peer review process. What differentiates academic research from other writing? Apart from the research design, many academics hold up the blind peer review process to be a central difference. Usually, a competitive grant or a journal article goes to between two and five reviewers, who are often subject matter experts. The identities of both the author(s) and the reviewers are kept secret from each-other. Supposedly, this enhances the quality of the review process and the candour of the feedback provided. Having studied the feedback of 80 journal articles and 50 competitive grants, I disagree. The feedback quality is highly reviewer dependent. Blind peer review provides a lack of transparency that allows reviewers to engage in uber-critical reviews (without constructive or developmental feedback), disciplinary in-fighting, or screeds on what the reviewer wished had been written. Many academic journals have no rejoinder process for authors to respond. These are problems of secrecy and can be avoided through more open systems (a lesson from post-mortems on intelligence ‘failures’).
5. Being set up to fail through the competitive grants process. A greater emphasis on research output metrics has prioritised success in competitive grants. Promotions committees now look for a track record in external grants for Associate Professor and Professor roles. Australian universities do not often have endowed chairs or institutional investment portfolios — so they are more reliant on grant income. Collectively, these trends translate into more pressure on academics to apply for competitive grants. However, success is often a matter of paying close attention to the funding rules, carefully scoping the specific research project and budget, developing a collaborative team that can execute on the project, and having the necessary track record in place. These criteria are very similar to those which venture capitalists use to evaluate start-ups. Opportunity evaluation, timing, and preparatory work is essential. Not meeting this criteria means the application will probably fail and the grant-writing time may be wasted: most competitive grants have a 10-20% success rate. Some universities have internal grant schemes that enable new academics to interact with these dynamics before applying to an external agency. In all cases, the competitive grant operates as a career screening mechanism. For institutions, these grants are ‘rain-making’ activities: they bring money in, rather than to the individual academic.
6. A narrow focus on A* and A-level journals at the expense of all other forms of academic writing. The ARC’s ERA and similar schemes prioritise peer reviewed journals over other forms of writing. (This de-valued large parts of my 18-year publishing history.) The 2009 and 2010 versions of ERA had a journal ranking list which led many university administrators I know to focus on A* and A-level journals. I liked the journal ranking list but I also saw it had some perverse effects over its 18 months of use. It led to on-the-fly decisions made because of cumulative metrics in a publishing track record. It destroyed some of the ‘tacit’ knowledge that academics had about how and why to publish in particular journals. It de-valued B-ranked journals that are often sub-discipline leaders. It helped to create two groups of academics: those with the skills and training to publish in A* and A-level journals, and those who did not. It led to unrealistic expectations of what was needed to get into an A* journal like MIT’s International Security: a failure to understand creative and publishing processes. The narrow emphasis on journals ignored academic book publishers, CRC reports, academic internet blogs, media coverage, and other research outputs. Good writers, editors and publishers know differently: a high-impact publication can emerge from the unlikeliest of places. As of April 2012, my most internationally cited research output is a 2009 conference paper, rejected from the peer review stream due to controversy, that I co-wrote with Ben Eltham on Twitter and Iran’s 2009 election crisis. It would be excluded from the above criteria, although Eltham and I have since written several articles for the A-level journal Media International Australia.
Awareness of these six barriers is essential to academic success and to not becoming co-dependent on your institution.